Yogic Breathing Exercises
Yoga Sutra II:49 states:
When asana is perfected, inspiration and expiration can be controlled.
Pranayama is the fourth limb (following asana) of Ashtanga Yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The following verses state:
Modifications of Pranayama are to inhale, exhale, or retain the breath. They can be long or short and modified according to space time and number (YS11:50).
(Beginners are limited to the space of the chest, as the practice advances they begin to occupy more and more space to the point of cell breathing. By daily and regular practice one reaches mastery of breathing exercises.)
As a result of mastery gained in pranayama, avidya (ignorance) which is covering the light of Self is destroyed (YS 11:52).
Pranayama is not just breathing. Pranayama is specific challenging breathing “exercises” meant to purify the body by the building up of heat. Before one begins Pranayama it is important that one breathes correctly, which we learn to do in the practice of asana.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika in Chapter 2 Verse 1 says after learning control of the body through asana and a balanced diet; pranayama is ready to be practiced.
The first Pranayama practice is Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing). Nadi Shodhana translates as nerve purification. This is a calming, balancing practice. To practice:
Hand position: tuck index and middle fingers to base of thumb, thumb is used to close right nostril and third finger is used to close left nostril
Stage 1: Inhale and exhale 10x through left nostril, repeat on the right
Stage 2: Inhale left, exhale right 5x, repeat reversed
Stage 3: Inhale left, exhale right, inhale right, exhale left (this is one round) practice 5-10 rounds
Stage 4: Add breath retention after inhalations.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama – Nerve Purifying breath, balances the flow of Shakti in Ida and Pingala nadies and the flow of the breath through the nostrils.
The right and left sides of our bodies are associated with the sun and the moon, cooling and heating. The left side is the moon, cool, feminine, relaxed side. When the left nostril is dominant we tend to meditate easier, be calm, cool, and collected, possibly lethargic or depressed. The right side is associated with the sun, heat and movement, and masculinity. If the right nostril is dominant we tend to be active in thinking, more energetic, and possibly more stressed or agitated.
Nadi Shodhana balances these oppositions within us.
The second pranayama practice to learn is Kapalbhati (clears the mind and removes mucus).
Perform exhalation and inhalation rapidly like the bellows (of a blacksmith). This is called Kapalbhati and it destroys all mucous disorders. Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2:35
Kapalbhati is a pranayama technique which invigorates the brain and cleanses the mind. In English it translates as ‘frontal brain cleansing’ technique. The exhalation is emphasized, while the inhalation is just a “rebound” from the exhalation. The breath should be done like a pumping action, the diaphragm and abdominals push the air out, then relax and the air is sucked in due to the vacuum effect.
- Sit in your meditation position.
- Take a deep inhale, forcefully exhale quickly, then relax on the inhales and allow air to enter your lungs. Inhales should be short. Practice 50x, eventually over weeks and months work up to 108x.
- After the last exhalation, inhale deeply through the nose, exhale through pursed lips, perform jalandhara, moola, and uddiyana bandhas while retaining your breath
- Release bandhas from bottom upward and then inhale.
Kapalbhati should be done after asana but before meditation.
Kapalbhati expels more carbon dioxide and other waste gases from the cells and lungs than normal breathing, it also helps to relax the facial muscles and nerves. It rejuvenates tired cells and nerves, keeping the face young, shining, and wrinkle free.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2:51-53
Closing the mouth, inhale with control and concentration through ida and pingala, so that the breath is felt from the throat to the heart and produces a sonorous sound.
Do kumbhaka as before and exhale through ida. This removes phlegm from the throat and stimulates the (digestive) fire.
This pranayama, called ujjayi, can be done while moving, standing, sitting, or walking. It removes dropsy and disorders of the nadis and dhatu.
- Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth.
- Slightly contract the region in the back of the throat as you do when you swallow–or “fog” your glasses to clean them.
- Smile softly to yourself to broaden and soften the soft palate.
- Inhalation and exhalation are done through the nose, with a partial closure of the glottis which produces a full and deep wind sound. The sound must come from the throat and not forced to come through the nose.
- Feel the breath from your throat to your heart.
Ujjayi promotes internalization of the senses, Pratyahara. It aids in developing breath awareness because it makes the breath more tangible. It slows and deepens the breath and tones the muscles of respiration.
Ujjayi Pranayama can be incorporated into asana practice purely to increase awareness and to stimulate Sushumna, or for therapeutic purposes. It is used preventatively for throat ailments of various kinds and in the treatment of bronchial asthma; it removes phlegm and stimulates the digestive fire, increasing internal heat (which is useful during asana practice).
Ujjayi is especially recommended for people who have insomnia and mental tension, as it relieves anxiety and calms the nervous system. The simple form without breath retention is a must in the yogic management of heart disease. However, anyone with low blood pressure must first correct their condition before taking up the practice.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2:3
As long as the vayu (air and prana) remains in the body, that is called life. Death is when it leaves the body. Therefore retain vayu.
You can use your pranayama techniques “off the mat”. Feel stressed? Try nadi shodhana or ujjayi pranayama. Feel sluggish? Try a round of Kapalbhati.